The Piedmont school board has accepted the resignation of former boys varsity basketball coach Tommy Lewis, ending what Piedmont High School athletic director and football coach Steve Smith called “the unprecedented success that we’ve had over the last 12 years in the sport of boys basketball.”
Unprecedented is a big word that covers a long time but it is appropriate for what Lewis accomplished. The Bulldogs won nine area tournament championships in Lewis’ 12 seasons. They advanced to sub-region play two more times as runner-up in the area tournament. Nine times Piedmont teams reached the Northeast Regional tournament at Jacksonville, winning three regional titles. At the state tournament, the Bulldogs were second in 2015. His 226 wins as head coach are the most in school history.
“I’m pretty proud of the time I’ve spent in Piedmont,” Lewis said. “It had a couple of disadvantages as far as time but the advantages far outweighed the fact that you might start late. I guess I did learn that’s not the worst thing in the world.”
The Bulldogs had won a total of 12 games in the three seasons before Lewis arrived.
He became their fourth head coach in seven seasons. Having played and then coached at neighboring Spring Garden then coached at rival Cherokee County High in Centre, Lewis wasn’t the universally popular choice for a new coach back in 2006 when he was hired.
Smith was three months into his tenure as athletic director at Piedmont and he was searching for a replacement for Bobby Whaley.
“I had watched him win everywhere he had been (Gaylesvile, Spring Garden and Cherokee County) and thought he might could be the shot in the arm that could get us going,” Smith said.
A chance meeting with Lewis in the city park in Centre one Friday afternoon gave Smith an opportunity to ask if Lewis would possibly be interested in coming to Piedmont. When he showed interest, Smith – and later basketball assistant Matt Glover – told Lewis there was a talented group of basketball players in junior high at Piedmont. Smith said former Piedmont superintendent Matt Akin “was on board with the fact that he was a proven head coach, a proven winner” and decided to hire Lewis.
“I know a lot of those folks that weren’t as fired up in the beginning in 2006 sure did get to make a lot of nice runs with the Bulldogs in the playoffs,” Smith said.
Lewis said he liked the challenge of turning losses into wins, thinking, “They haven’t done something in so long, maybe there’s somebody there that wants to be different. I think there was a lot of that in there.”
Lewis said he was fortunate during his time at Piedmont to usually have “layers of good players” from multiple grades, so that it was seldom starting from scratch from one year to the next. Although he’s never won a state championship, he said the quality of his players more than made up for that.
“I’ve been real lucky. I’ve had kids I liked and who played hard. To have that for that many years, I can’t complain that I didn’t win one of those things.”
Lewis was a relentless worker. When Piedmont was making a deep run in the football playoffs he would scout potential opponents in the state tournament. He had seen in person Greene County prior to the 2010 state tournament, Clarke County prior to 2011 and both Excel and Madison Academy prior to 2015.
“You find me another basketball coach anywhere that will drive five hours on a Thursday night to go watch somebody in the southwest corner of Alabama play that you might play in the final four if you get out of regionals,” Smith said.
“Every time we went to the final four he had already seen those people play in person somehow or another. He didn’t just get lucky and pick the right one. He had scouted three or four people that potentially could come out of that other regional. That kind of dedication, you just don’t find that in everybody.”
Lewis particularly remembers the three teams that didn’t reach the Northeast Regional and how close each came. In 2007, his first Piedmont team lost its sub-regional game to North Sand Mountain 53-51 on the road when the Bulldogs failed to defend an inbounds play they knew was coming.
At Ashville in 2013, Lewis’ only Piedmont team with a losing record lost to Ashville 65-63 on the road when they didn’t get a traveling calling call against the home team that would have given Piedmont the ball with nine seconds to play down by a point. In 2014, the only time Piedmont didn’t advance to sub-region play, the No. 3 Bulldogs lost to No. 2 Saks 63-62 in the first round of the area tournament after leading most of the game. That Saks team went on to win the Northeast Regional.
“You remember all that stuff,” he said.
Was there a secret to his success?
“It’s more than Xs and Os. They’ll play harder if they believe you care,” Lewis said.
Having talent was another key.
“There have been some good athletes. That was what saved me. There’s always been a good group of guys that maybe basketball wasn’t their first love but they were good enough athletes that they could play the game well enough to win,” he said.
Helping his players learn to believe in themselves may have been the biggest Lewis secret to coaching winning basketball.
“Work on the fundamental concepts,” he advised. “Coach Whaley was a much better Xs and Os coach than I was but it doesn’t do you any good if you don’t hit the shot, don’t have faith in your shot. I think that’s something people overlook a lot. … I kept getting the kids to believe they can hit that shot. It’s okay to shoot that shot. … You’re the reason we’re going to win or lose. You’re going to get the credit if we win and I’ll take the blame if we lose. It’s about playing.”
Lewis started coaching by helping his high school coach, Dale Welsh, at Spring Garden the whole time he was in college. He did his student teaching at Piedmont with former football coach George Hoblitzell, a god basketball player but not high on the sport. He quickly found a way to ingratiate himself to Hoblitzell, arriving early each day and running the dust mop over the gym floor.
“I started out dust-mopping the floor at Piedmont and I ended up dust-mopping the floor at Piedmont,” Lewis said with a chuckle. “Shows you never can tell. It was just a real supportive place to coach. … I can’t think of a place I’ve worked I felt more appreciated.”
Smith remains a Tommy Lewis fan.
“I’m very much thankful for the time he put in at our place and couldn’t ask for a better basketball coach to work with, just grateful for the 12 years that he was there with us and for all that he did with the basketball program – making you proud to say you were from Piedmont and watching those kids have the success that they did. He always passed the glory on to them. He never did take a whole lot of it for himself. I think the world of the guy,” Smith said.